Big religion ghost: Would a 'blue dog Democrat' win Tennessee's U.S. Senate race?

What, pray tell, is a “blue dog Democrat” these days? If you look up the term online, you will find several variations on what characteristics define this politically endangered species.

Growing up as a Democrat in ‘70s Texas, I always heard that “blue dogs” — especially in West Texas — were progressives on economic issues and conservatives on culture. Many were “populist” Texans left over from the old New Deal coalition. Eventually, it was crucial that many “blue dogs” were Democrats who angered Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, we had a term for politicos who were conservative on economics and liberal on cultural and moral issues. They were “country club” Republicans.

Here is some language from the website of the current Blue Dog PAC :

The Blue Dog Coalition was created in 1995 to represent the commonsense, moderate voice of the Democratic Party, appealing to mainstream American values. The Blue Dogs are leaders in Congress who are committed to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines to do what’s best for the American people.

Ah, what do the words “mainstream American values” mean in a land dominated by digital “progressives” and Donald Trump? Are there moral or religious implications there?

The term “blue dog” showed up in a recent New York Times feature about the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee, the Bible Belt state that I now call home. (Click here for a previous post on a related subject.) Here is the Times headline: “A Changing Tennessee Weighs a Moderate or Conservative for Senate.”

In Times terms, of course, this is a race between a “moderate” Democrat, that would be former governor Phil Bredesen, and the “hard-line” Republican, Rep. Marsha Blackburn. As always, the term “moderate” is a sign of editorial favor.

Believe it or not, this piece contains ZERO information about the role of moral and cultural issues in this race. Why is that? Here is the context of the “blue dog” reference.

Mr. Bredesen, who still speaks with the bluntness of the boardroom he led at HealthAmerica Corporation before he became Nashville’s mayor, said revulsion toward Mr. Trump among Democrats had given him a wide berth.

“I’m in the fortunate position that people on the left are enraged enough that they will find almost anything I do, with the D after my name, acceptable,” he said.

This assumption, along with his support for Justice Kavanaugh, irritates some Democrats, and Mr. Bredesen lost some volunteers after the court fight. …

Mr. Bredesen must maximize his support among African-Americans, who make up about 16 percent of the state’s electorate, overwhelm Ms. Blackburn in Tennessee’s largest urban areas and split or at least hold down his losses with the rural voters in the middle and western part of the state.

There are many younger Republicans in the state who think this is fantasy, that no Democrat is viable here.

“I always believed that Blackburn would be successful, in part due to our move from a conservative state with a shade of blue dog to a single-party state today,” said Mark Braden, a Nashville-based Republican strategist, alluding to Tennessee’s faded brand of moderate Democrat.

You may have noticed the lack of an East Tennessee reference in that passage?

Actually, one of the strengths of this feature is that it does a good job of tracing the Republican heritage in the Eastern mountains, stressing that those GOP roots go all the way back to support for the Union in the Civil War. There are lots of folks in East Tennessee, where I live, who were conservative Republicans long before Ronald Reagan.

To cut to the chase: Politicians who thrived in Tennessee in the late 20th Century were Democrats who could appeal to culturally conservative Republicans or Republicans who could appeal to blue dog Democrats. The Times ignores the religious and cultural part of the equation.

Which is interesting, when you read this Bredesen quote about Democrats the political realities in his state:

Mr. Bredesen may be running the most cautious, high-profile Senate campaign of any Democrat in the country.

He came out in support of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — after the searing Senate hearings. He has aired a commercial in which he shoots sporting clays and trumpets his “support of the Second Amendment” as well as his N.R.A. A rating as governor. He casually scorns his party’s drift left and leaders like Chuck Schumer in language more often heard from Republicans.

“I remember sitting down here as governor during the time of the Great Recession, where, I mean, there’s just a lot of pain, and everybody wants to talk about what bathroom somebody’s using or something, you know?” he said in an interview, when asked why this state had turned right. President Barack Obama, he added, was “a very smart guy, but kind of elitist in his leanings.”

So Bredesen is pro-guns, to some degree, but its easy to see some tension there on cultural conservatism. Where does he stand on faith and the First Amendment? Where is he on America’s current approach to abortion and other “life” issues?

In terms of information on those matters, the Times offers more of this: Click here.

This brings me, believe it or not, to former Vice President Al Gore, who some will recall was a Democrat who once represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.

There was a time when blue-zip-code journalists, when hearing the words “Al Gore,” didn’t think of global warming. No, there was a good chance that they thought this — “Tipper.”

That would be Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s former wife. She was very popular with religious and cultural conservatives — the Religious Right, even — because of her work on, yes, moral and cultural issues linked to children and mass media, especially popular music and video games.

This made sense, because Al Gore of Tennessee was a populist Democrat who leaned right on cultural issues during his years in the U.S. House of Representatives and, to a lesser extent, while in the U.S. Senate. His approval rating from National Right to Life, for example, was often in the 80 percent range. Here’s the top of a 1999 Weekly Standard piece on how Gore moved left — when he prepared to leave Tennessee.

Guess which presidential candidate wrote the following: "I have consistently opposed federal funding of abortions. In my opinion, it is wrong to spend federal funds for what is arguably the taking of a human life. It is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong. I hope that some day we will see a drop in the outrageously large numbers of abortions which currently take place. . . . I share your belief that innocent human life must be protected, and I am committed to furthering this goal." …

Al Gore wrote those words in July 1987, on the eve of his first bid for the White House. … The record shows that he began his political career in the 1970s as a consistent pro-lifer; his conversion to pro-choice began with his 1984 Senate bid, and his enthusiasm for abortion rights has only intensified. The simplest explanation for the switch: Ambition trumped principle.

Also, there was this:

The most revealing of Gore's abortion votes came in July 1984. That's when he supported an amendment offered by representative Mark Siljander, a Republican, defining "unborn children from the moment of conception" as "persons" who were entitled to the full protection of federal civil rights laws. 

The Times piece on the 2018 Senate race includes several Gore quotes, talking about Tennessee’s “moderate” heritage and that’s that.

Readers will not, however, learn how the Democratic Party’s current approach to moral and cultural issues will affect what happens to Bredesen on Election Day in Tennessee. Maybe the post-Tipper version of Al Gore didn’t want to talk about that stuff?

All I know, as a Tennessee voter, is that a culturally conservative Democrat would have a much better chance of victory here in 2018 than a candidate who attempts to run away from those topics. Bredesen is, after all, a New York Times “moderate.” Journalists covering the 2018 race may want to ask a few questions about religion and culture.

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